We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption

We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption

by Justin Fenton

Narrated by Dion Graham

Justin Fenton

Unabridged — 9 hours, 41 minutes

We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption

We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption

by Justin Fenton

Narrated by Dion Graham

Justin Fenton

Unabridged — 9 hours, 41 minutes

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Notes From Your Bookseller

It’s fair to say that when David Simon, creator of The Wire, is obsessed with a scandal, we lean in to listen. Add to it the fact that Justin Fenton has been a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun for over a decade and we know we are in authoritative hands about a criminal enterprise within the Baltimore police department. Brutal, honest and unrelenting, this is journalism that wakes us up.

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORS' CHOICE ¿ The astonishing true story of “one of the most startling police corruption scandals in a generation” (The New York Times), from the Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter who exposed a gang of criminal cops and their yearslong plunder of an American city


“A work of journalism that not only chronicles the rise and fall of a corrupt police unit but can stand as the inevitable coda to the half-century of disaster that is the American drug war.”-David Simon

Baltimore, 2015. Riots are erupting across the city as citizens demand justice for Freddie Gray, a twenty-five-year-old Black man who has died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody. Drug and violent crime are surging, and Baltimore will reach its highest murder count in more than two decades: 342 homicides in a single year, in a city of just 600,000 people. Facing pressure from the mayor's office-as well as a federal investigation of the department over Gray's death-Baltimore police commanders turn to a rank-and-file hero, Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, and his elite plainclothes unit, the Gun Trace Task Force, to help get guns and drugs off the street. 
But behind these new efforts, a criminal conspiracy of unprecedented scale was unfolding within the police department. Entrusted with fixing the city's drug and gun crisis, Jenkins chose to exploit it instead. With other members of the empowered Gun Trace Task Force, Jenkins stole from Baltimore's citizens-skimming from drug busts, pocketing thousands in cash found in private homes, and planting fake evidence to throw Internal Affairs off their scent. Their brazen crime spree would go unchecked for years. The results were countless wrongful convictions, the death of an innocent civilian, and the mysterious death of one cop who was shot in the head, killed just a day before he was scheduled to testify against the unit.
In this urgent book, award-winning investigative journalist Justin Fenton distills hundreds of interviews, thousands of court documents, and countless hours of video footage to present the definitive account of the entire scandal. The result is an astounding, riveting feat of reportage about a rogue police unit, the city they held hostage, and the ongoing struggle between American law enforcement and the communities they are charged to serve.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

★ 12/14/2020

Baltimore Sun reporter Fenton, whose coverage of the Baltimore riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray led to a Pulitzer Prize nomination, debuts with a searing look at that city’s recent police corruption scandal. The Baltimore PD’s Gun Trace Task Force was created in 2007 to make the streets safer by clamping down on guns and drugs; instead, under the crooked leadership of Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, Fenton writes, the task force members became criminals themselves—committing robberies, dealing narcotics, engaging in overtime fraud, and planting or misappropriating evidence. People of color were stopped and harassed on false pretexts by task force members, fostering community distrust of the police at a time when Fenton believed an increase in violent crime meant that ethical policing was more needed than ever. Jenkins and his crew were federally indicted in 2017, and, subsequently, all seven members of the GTTF were convicted of crimes including racketeering, robbery, illegal searches and seizures, and drug dealing. Fenton’s detailed narrative makes the tragic consequences of the GTTF’s graft palpable. Fans of TV series such as Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire based on journalist David Simon’s groundbreaking coverage of Baltimore will be engrossed. Agent: Rafe Sagalyn, ICM Partners. (Feb.)

From the Publisher

Fenton populates his narrative with a network of officers, informants and street dealers, all with different motivations and interests. . . . The overall effect is to capture the disorienting, churning quality of a city where the good guys and bad guys aren’t easily distinguished. . . . [Fenton] shows how, in our zeal to combat crime, we have allowed institutions to produce it.”The New York Times Book Review
“Baltimore’s grim realities have been mined by talented writers like D. Watkins, Wes Moore and, most famously, celebrated author and TV producer David Simon, whose books and television series—Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood and The Wire—deftly illuminated Charm City’s complex web of problems. One could be excused for wondering whether there is any more to say about Baltimore and crime. But the gripping new book We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption puts that concern to rest.”The Washington Post

“Fenton tells a story of bad people and bad attitudes. . . . His book reveals the way systemic discrimination operates, whom it affects and how it is sustained. His narrative is brisk and engaging.”London Review of Books

“A standout examination of the failures of policing, laid out in context with greater systemic failures . . . We Own This City is a sobering and necessary account of one dramatic way that trust was destroyed, but it is as much a damning indictment of how that destruction grew out of a mixture of negligence, incompetence and hubris.”The Wall Street Journal

“A remarkable story about the real-life collision of corruption, criminality, and racial profiling. Justin Fenton tells a well-written, wrenching narrative about a dark chapter in not only Baltimore’s history but in the legacy of disconnect between American citizens and those who are sworn to protect and serve them. This book is a must-read.”—Wes Moore, author of The Other Wes Moore and Five Days

“A masterful account of how police corruption takes root in a Baltimore plagued by crooked cops, oblivious leaders, and beleaguered citizens. The scandal at its heart is shocking in the sheer scope of its venality, and Fenton’s years of reporting lays it bare in novelistic, riveting detail. Here is a writer with a singular command of his story, spinning a dark tale so deftly that it’s impossible to look away.”—Evan Ratliff, author of The Mastermind

“A tale of chaos and corruption, We Own This City is a meticulously researched account in which one of our foremost criminal justice reporters unwinds one of the biggest scandals in the history of American policing.”—Wesley Lowery, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author of They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement

Library Journal


Baltimore Sun crime reporter Fenton chronicles the rise of one of the nation's largest police corruption scandals. He intertwines it with an account of the 2015 murder of Freddie Gray, a young Black man who died of a spinal cord injury while in police custody—a death many journalists have attributed to a "rough ride," or the practice of driving dangerously while transporting handcuffed individuals. A skillful investigator, Fenton sheds light on the circumstances in Baltimore that gave rise to the corruption of the Gun Trace Task Force. Led by then-Sergeant Wayne Jenkins, this police unit stole money from the homes of private citizens, planted evidence that resulted in convictions, and got in the way of other departments tasked with investigating allegations of misconduct. With drugs and violent crime reaching a fever pitch in Baltimore, the departmental efforts, which were intended to make a positive impact upon crime rates within the city, resulted in scandal, misuse of taxpayer funds, and criminal convictions. Fenton's writing is engaging, and he includes court documents and interviews as he dissects the delicate relationships between communities and those who are supposed to protect and serve. VERDICT A recommended purchase for collections where law enforcement titles focused on political and ethical issues circulate well.—Mattie Cook, Flat River Community Lib., MI

Kirkus Reviews

When police officers are the criminals, they serve and protect themselves.

When Freddie Gray died while in Baltimore Police custody in 2015, protests broke out in the streets, and Baltimore Sun crime reporter Fenton—who shared a Pulitzer for coverage of the events—was on the scene. Strangely, he fell under the protection of both Crips and Bloods, who worked under a truce that overlooked red and blue gang garb and instead focused on the Black of the victim. Certainly, according to the author’s tenacious reporting, the Baltimore officers focused on Blackness, in a very negative way: Their Gun Trace Task Force broke into homes without warrants, searched Black people without probable cause, stole guns and money, and sold confiscated drugs. “While the police department leadership begged citizens to cooperate,” writes Fenton, “some of its elite officers were running roughshod on Black men in poor neighborhoods, creating a free-fire zone for anyone seeking to exploit them.” The worst of the bunch was a sergeant who devolved from model Marine to utterly corrupt cop. He partnered with a cocaine dealer to identify other dealers, seize their wares, and sell them; reportedly, that sergeant had squirreled away at least half a million dollars, having done things like broken into a dealer’s car and “stolen between $12,000 and $19,000.” Before getting greedy, a core group of officers—most now serving prison terms thanks to an FBI investigation that Fenton tracks almost in real time—preferred to skim money off the top during seizures. Meanwhile, the GTTF was lauded for its results, which were murky at best. “Despite police and prosecutors’ stated priority of holding people caught carrying guns accountable,” writes the author, “officials would later acknowledge that no one was circling back to check or improve the outcomes.” Fenton’s fast-paced narrative, perfect for fans of The Wire, delivers a satisfying resolution, though it remains to be seen whether the department will truly clean up under new management, for which readers must stay tuned.

A harrowing study in true crime, most of it committed by men with badges.

Product Details

BN ID: 2940177650241
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publication date: 02/23/2021
Edition description: Unabridged

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The letter arrived in the chambers of a federal judge in Baltimore in the summer of 2017. It had been sent from the McDowell Federal Correctional Institution, which was nestled in the middle of nowhere, West Virginia, more than six hours from Baltimore. On the front of the envelope, the inmate had written: “Special mail.”

Umar Burley had written his letter on lined notebook paper, in neat, bouncy print, using tildes to top his T’s. Burley, inmate number 43787-037, was reaching out to the judge for a second time, begging for a court-appointed lawyer. His attorney had retired, and attempts to reach another had gone unanswered.

“Could you imagine how hard it is to be here for a crime I didn’t commit and struggling to find clarity and justice on my own?” Burley wrote.

Months earlier, Burley had been in the recreation hall of a federal prison in Oklahoma, awaiting transportation to McDowell, when someone called to him: “Little Baltimore! Little Baltimore! Did you see that?” News from home flashed across the television screen: A group of eight Baltimore police officers had been charged with stealing from citizens and lying about their cases. The officers had carried out their alleged crimes undeterred by the fact that the police department was at the time under a broad civil rights investigation following the death of a young Black man from injuries sustained while in police custody. The revelations were breathtaking, though not entirely unbelievable: For years, accusations of misconduct—from illegal strip searches to broken bones—had been leveled against city police. But many claims lacked hard proof and came from people with long rap sheets and every incentive to level a false accusation. Such toss-ups tended to go in favor of the cops. With the deck so stacked against them, most victims didn’t even bother to speak up. Often, they did have drugs or guns, and the fact that the cops lied about the details of the encounter or took some of the seized money for themselves, well, in Baltimore, it was a dirty game in which the ends justified the means.

But now a wiretap case back home was shining a light on the culture of the force, and the federal prosecutors who brought the charges were looking for more victims. And Umar Burley had a story to tell.

Burley’s story begins on the morning of April 28, 2010. Members of a plainclothes police squad had been summoned for an ad hoc roll call on the street. Their sergeant, running a little late, told them to stay put. But Detective Wayne Jenkins felt the itch. He told the others that the area around Belle Avenue, in Northwest Baltimore, was “hot” with reports of criminal activity.

“Let’s go,” Jenkins said.

You can tell some police officers to stand under a pole for ten hours. Check nine hours later, they’ll still be there. Send them to Greenmount Avenue and order them to walk up and down the boulevard, and they’ll pace until the soles of their shoes begin to wear thin. But others need to get into something. They want to sit in vacant houses peering through binoculars or chase suspects through alleys; they work ungodly amounts of overtime. These are the “10 percent” whom commanders in the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) rely on to get the job done.

These are also the officers most likely to make up the plainclothes units known around town as “knockers” or “jumpout boys,” a reference to their aggressive tactics. Officers in plainclothes units often operate in the shadows of a police department. Their work is not to be confused with undercover operations, in which police officers assume a different identity and worm their way into a criminal organization. Plainclothes officers, as the description suggests, work in street clothes rather than uniforms. They drive unmarked vehicles. They are not typically tethered to specific posts or obligated to respond to 911 calls. Instead, they go out looking for illegal activity—people selling drugs or displaying bulges under clothing that could be guns—and they operate with a great deal of independence. They can let a suspect go if they think the suspect can lead them to bigger fish. Across the country, these plainclothes squads have often been where scandals are born, but police department leaders over the years have deemed them critical to the crime fight—they are the “Vikings” who go out into the field and return with a “bounty,” as one Baltimore chief would later put it.

Jenkins seemed perpetually in motion, and his gung-ho attitude quickly won the white former marine early entry into the BPD’s most elite units. By 2010, less than seven years into his time on the force, Jenkins had worked his way into a new “violent repeat offender” squad, a handpicked group of officers whose charge was to go after Baltimore’s worst offenders. They would often be given names of elusive suspected criminals and allowed only thirty days to build their best case.

They headed to Grove Park, a leafy neighborhood on the city/county border featuring single-family homes and a constellation of apartment buildings connected by paths and lined with cherry trees. As Baltimore neighborhoods go, it was decidedly different from the dense, abandoned row home neighborhoods closer to the city core, but it was not without crime. From their unmarked cars, the officers would later write in court paperwork, they spotted Umar Burley sitting in his Acura in the 3800 block of Parkview Avenue when another man walked up carrying what appeared to be cash and climbed in. “At this time, due to my training and expertise, I believed a narcotic transaction was possibly taking place,” Jenkins would write.

Jenkins was riding with Detective Ryan Guinn, a half-Irish, half-Vietnamese cop whose appearance nevertheless prompted people in the neighborhoods where he worked to call him “Puerto Rican Yo.” Guinn reached for his radio.

“Hey Sean,” he said in a low calm voice, addressing Sean Suiter, another member of the squad riding in a separate car. “We’ll try to stop this Accord.”

“I got you. I’m with you,” said Suiter.

The officers moved in for an arrest, with Jenkins and Guinn pulling in front of Burley’s car, and Suiter taking up the rear. Their emergency lights were activated, Jenkins wrote in the charging papers, and their badges were “clearly displayed.” He said the officers saw movement in the vehicle and ordered the men to show their hands. Guinn jumped out of the car and drew his gun, ordering Burley not to move. Burley maneuvered his car around the police vehicles and raced out of view.

“Hey, we got one running,” Guinn radioed to the other officers, Jenkins’s voice audible in the background. “By Seton Park Apartments. Black Acura.”

He called out the license plate: “One-Frank-Young-King-Zero-Eight.”

The chase lasted less than a minute. Burley made it less than a mile down the road when the officers heard a loud crash. It sounded like a bomb going off, and when they arrived at the intersection of Belle and Gwynn Oak avenues, they saw water gushing out of a fire hydrant that had been struck. The front bumper had come away from the car; the hood was mangled. The officers wondered how badly the men inside were hurt, when suddenly they bolted out. Guinn gave chase after the passenger, Brent Matthews, while Jenkins and Suiter took on Burley.

An onlooker called 911, relaying a scene that did not appear to involve police officers.

“A car crash. Belle and Gwynn Oak. A guy—they’re running, trying to shoot each other!”

“You said they’re trying to shoot each other?” the 911 operator asked.

“Yes—the car’s into a fire hydrant, they jumped out, they started running, one with a gun.”

Burley was caught by Suiter about fifty feet from the crash site. “Why did you pull off?” Suiter asked, according to Burley. “Why didn’t you just see what we wanted?”

“All you had to do was put on your lights,” Burley responded.

Guinn caught the passenger, and a struggle ensued. He was able to overpower the man and walked him back to the scene in cuffs.

“The shit’s in the car,” Jenkins told Guinn.

Along with a patrol officer, Suiter searched Burley’s vehicle and picked up a baggie on the floor containing thirty-two grams of heroin.

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